The Art of Being Fine

Making Room for the Villain

The radiologist pointed, “Right there, see the dark spot? I don’t like what I’m seeing.”  There it was, right of center on the screen, nestled in bright white digital breast tissue on the screen. The spot was dark and sinister, like a burn hole on a white couch. Its’ edges blurred into the surrounding tissue, core as dark as a well shaft.

I was transfixed by the sight of it. It seemed embodied, almost taunting. Observing it felt like watching a movie in which the villain creeps up on the unsuspecting victim.  As much as you want to pretend otherwise, you have seen it now.  Room must be made for it in the story.

Still transfixed, my head cocked just a bit, my radiologist’s words nudged my attention.  “…it looks fairly contained, but we can’t be sure what we’re looking at until we see the actual cells.  I’d like to schedule a biopsy.”  I forced my eyes away to face him full.

“Do you think it is something I need to worry about?”

“I can’t be sure until we see the cells, yet I want to be up front with you. My best guess is yes, it’s cancer.”

He squeezed my shoulder and asked the nurse to schedule the biopsy.  After he left the room, I looked down at the offending part. I touched the surface above where the villain loitered deep.  Against the chest wall, so far back that three breast exams hadn’t discerned it. In a strange way, I felt attached to it, possessive even, the threat of its removal heckling my anxiety. The biopsy was scheduled for the next morning.

In the coming days, I would lose my attachment to this sinister stranger. Breast cancer is a dubious villain. Void of pain or discomfort, it numbs the reality of its presence under layers of tissue, muscle, and denial.

Making Room for Truth

In the days following the biopsy, I hugged my Florida-bound daughter good-bye as she loaded her U-Haul, assuring her that all was fine. I congratulated my former husband on his upcoming marriage, assuring him I would be fine. I kissed my sweet, cancer-ridden Mom, fibbing that I was fine.

The space between potential and certain diagnosis was filled with the farcical word, “fine.”

Two days later the phone rang.  White letters spelled “Breast Center” across the black screen of my iPhone. I took a deep breath, fixed my eyes on the yellow flowers blooming outside the panes of my office window and swept my finger to the right, accepting my fate.

An upbeat, efficient voice responded, “Hello, this is the Breast Center.  I just received the results of your biopsy. The tumor is malignant.” She paused briefly, acknowledging the moment.  “This is a lot to take in, would you like to come to the office?”

Matching her chipper tone, I responded. “Of course! I can be there in 35 minutes.”

Malignant. It’s an ugly diagnosis with an ugly name. I thought the silly things one does when words cannot be absorbed.  Things like, “What if the yellow day lilies were named, ‘malignant.’ Would the word sound as dreadful?”

I packed my briefcase and left the building without a word.

During the 35-minute drive to the Breast Center, I acknowledged how much there was yet to learn about how to go through significant moments alone. “Do I ask someone to go with me? Do I want anyone with me? What happens when the person with whom you committed to go through such things is marrying another?”

“Damn it,” I thought for the umpteenth time in a year, “there should be instructions for moments like these.” Such moments are important – life or death multiply from them.

Arriving alone at the Breast Center, I hesitated.  Then, bidding my hoard of courage, I willed my sandal-clad summer feet out of the car toward the revolving entrance door. I was sure I appeared stoic and resolved. Inside, my calm was caving.

One hour and a hundred questions later, I drove my Jeep to the grocery store, a pink tote overflowing with pink brochures on the passenger seat. The time had come to call someone. I parked, turned off the engine, and pressed “Favorites” on my phone.

“Hi Mom, what’s up?”

“Remember that silly biopsy? I know I said it was nothing, but apparently, it’s something. I have breast cancer.”

“Shit,” my daughter’s quiet voice quivered.  “Are you ok? Where are you?”

“I’m fine.  I’m at the grocery store, doing what every responsible woman does when facing a crisis. I’m filling a grocery cart with food.”

“Ha. Do you want me to skip class and come home?”

“No honey, go to class. I won’t know more until I meet with the surgeon on Thursday. Do you want to come? I’d like you to be my person in this, if you’re willing.”

“I’m always your person, mom.  I’ll call you when I get home tonight.”

There. I had said it aloud and I had chosen a person. I got out of my Jeep, entered the normative world of grocery aisles and told myself I was fine.


Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words.  She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach.  Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents.  As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of every-day life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.